Bedrich SMETANA (1824-1884)
Má Vlast (1874-79) [76:49]
Hradec Králové Philharmonic Orchestra/Marek Štilec
rec. June 2015, Hradec Králové
ARCO DIVA UP0180 2131 [76:49]

There is no great shortage of recordings of Má Vlast. To add to the great store of historical inscriptions – several by Talich, including the memorable live broadcast from occupied Prague, several by Kubelík and not to mention Ančerl, Jeremiáš and other Czech luminaries – we’ve had younger readings from such as rising star Jakub Hrůša and his Prague Philharmonia (PKF) forces at the 2010 Prague Spring. Tomáš Netopil and his Prague Symphony Orchestra have also recorded it on FOK 0001–2 031. Recent additions to the catalogue have thus offered smaller-scaled readings, less predicated on tonal mass and more on sorting out balances and lines; less Bohemian woods, more tree, perhaps.

In this micro-climate comes Marek Štilec with the Hradec Králové Philharmonic Orchestra, by no means an unknown quantity but an orchestra probably best-known to those with particular interests in Czech music. It was led for a decade between 1991 and 2001 by František Vajnar, whose recordings will be well-remembered by enthusiasts. Štilec’s band sounds roughly comparable in size to Hrůša’s from the sound of it. This live recording was given in June 2015 at an unnamed location - though I assume it was at the orchestra’s concert hall. There is barely any audience noise and no applause and any patching has been expertly done.

In the main Štilec takes good tempi, largely comparable to Ančerl’s from his heyday. Vyšehrad sounds imposing though it’s subjected to little tempo nudges here and there; the winds are crisp and the bass line is nicely sketched. The counter-themes of Vltava are well-pointed, though they do sound a touch lacking in impulse. The rapids are colourfully projected with crisp, cracking percussion; detail is arguably a bit too localised to allow the music to sweep onwards and I have reservations about the two final chords – a bit too pomposo. Štilec resists the temptation to turn the bassoon’s snores too cartoony in Šárka but there’s a tendency to rhetorical grandeur at the expense of affectionate, uplifting phrasing in From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields. This whole movement falls somewhat flat, a feeling not helped by a strangely indulgent tempo. The less complicated (interpretatively) diptych of Tábor and Blaník go well – and Štilec himself does well to keep expectation levels high in the two movements where repetition can imperil tension previously built up.

Despite the virtues of this disc, which includes a good booklet note, this can’t be seen as a central recommendation. It’s a fine souvenir of the orchestra, however.

Jonathan Woolf

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